Breath of the Spirit Reflection: What Gets in the Way of Your Yes?
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Today’s gospel begins with an exuberant, wealthy man who seemingly wants nothing more than to gain eternal life. However, Jesus quickly uncovers that this quest is not so straightforward as this man had thought. He wants to earn that which can only be given. His wealth has lulled him into thinking that he has everything under control. When Jesus asks him to give up that wealth and the control it offered him, the man quickly realized the limits of his love. Where do we brush up against the limits of our love, and what are the obstacles to the love that we seek?
October 11, 2021: Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Psalm 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17
A reflection by David Jackson
This Sunday’s selection from Mark’s Gospel consists of three sections that address wealth and the Reign of God: 1) the story of the rich man, 2) Jesus’ instruction to the disciples, and 3) Jesus’ teaching about rewards for giving up riches.
1) The story of the rich man. The man takes the initiative. He runs to Jesus, kneels down, questions Jesus. He tries to impress Jesus with the compliment, “Good Teacher”. He expects Jesus to greet him with a title in return, but Jesus does not. Some commentators suggest that this indicates Jesus’ irritation at the flattery.
When the rich man asks the “good teacher,” what he should do, Jesus lists commandments that deal with the treatment of one’s neighbor. These are the commandments that a powerful rich man may get away with not observing. (Much as in our own day!) It is easy enough to observe one’s ritual obligations and yet deal unjustly with one’s weaker neighbor.
The rich man replies, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” The rich man seems to calmly put himself in rather exalted company. In the Talmud, only Abraham, Moses, and Aaron are reported to have kept the whole law.
“Jesus,” in response to this hubris, “looking at him, loved him.” This is the only place in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is said to have loved some individual. It is the first movement from Jesus towards the rich man. To this point all the initiative has come from the man. He seems to believe he is quite capable of doing everything that he sets out to do – and he has the means to do it. He wants to achieve eternal life by his own efforts. His focus is on the future and what he can do to make it turn out in his best interests. Jesus tells him that, in the present, he must give up his two primary values: property (sell everything) and family (follow me). Jesus is telling him he cannot earn grace. This man wants to achieve what one can only receive. There is an impossible tension here between making it on one’s own and accepting a gift. The rich man’s response when confronted with Jesus’ request: “his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had great possessions.”
The other call stories in Mark help us to understand this story. In the other stories, Jesus takes the initiative. Consider the call of Simon and Andrew and James and John, (1:16-20); and the call of Levi, the tax collector (2:13-17). In neither of these does Jesus propose the need to “sell everything and give to the poor.” This demand is only here with the rich man. In fact, in John 21 the apostles return to the lake where Jesus originally called them, and they resume their fishing.
Here we have a person who is used to deciding his own destiny because he has the power and wealth to do it. “What must ‘I’ do to inherit eternal life?” He is blocked from a total commitment to Jesus by his desire to control his own destiny, as he always has. His wealth stands in the way of his discipleship. He wants to achieve not receive.
The contrast in this story between this man’s coming to Jesus and his leaving is strong. In the beginning, he comes running with enthusiasm and kneels. Questioning, he greets Jesus. In the middle, Jesus looks on him with love. At the end the man’s face falls and he departs in sadness.
2) This interaction challenges the disciples’ (and society’s) assumption that riches were a sign of God’s favor. Wealth can also be an obstacle to discipleship. “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Reign of God. The disciples were amazed at [these] words.”
“So Jesus again said to them, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the Reign of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Reign of God.’ They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, ‘Then who can be saved?’” The parable of the camel and the eye of the needle is a concrete picture of something impossible. Some see this as a reference to a story in Jewish literature to an elephant passing through the eye of a needle. Some see the needle as a reference to a gate in the Jerusalem wall. These connections are unlikely. The parable deliberately depicts something quite literally impossible. There is an impossible tension between making it on one’s own and accepting grace. Jesus captures this tension-impossibility in the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle.
3) The rewards of discipleship are infinitely greater than the sacrifices. Jesus responds and confirms that God’s Reign has boundless rewards for those who respond in obedience to the call. Peter, in the name of the apostles, states: “We have given up everything and followed you.” They are living examples of the miracle of which Jesus speaks, “for humans it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” The rewards are for this time and the age to come. But these rewards can only be received. They cannot be achieved. The text also offers an assurance, No one who responds to the call to obedience will be left out.
For this man, the wealth that created an attitude of privilege and an assumption that he could achieve whatever he desired was his obstacle to receiving the gift of following Jesus. What circumstance or attitude or assumption might be such an obstacle for me?
(Two helpful resources which I consulted for this reflection are, The Living Voice of the Gospel, by Francis J. Maloney, pp. 56-58, and, Through Peasant Eyes, by Kenneth E. Bailey, pp. 157-170.)
As a Catholic priest for 48 years David Jackson preached on most Sundays. Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark's Story by Ched Myers has been his go to for Cycle B, Mark. His love of Scripture led him to pursue an M.A. from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. For the past 16 years, he has sent out homily reflections to friends. For the last two years these reflections have also been available on Roman Catholic Women Priests Canada's bimonthly newsletter. Since he discovered Catholic Women Preach, that web site is part of his weekly preparation. At 82 years of age, he has been married for the last ten years to the love of his life, Alva. In March he published his first book, Jesus Gardens Me, available on Amazon.